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Third Place - Fiction

I found myself at the tree without knowing where I had been walking, although I suppose my subconscious had known all along. Its leaves were falling off. I zipped my jacket all the way up to my neck, thinking too late that I should have worn gloves or a scarf. The wind whipped my hair back. I sniffed back tears, staring at the wide, strong, unbending trunk that stood silently before me. A bird tweeted. I saw its nest in the branches above, and as I looked, sunlight streamed through the remaining leaves of the tree, warming my face and drying my tears. It felt like home.

Home now wasn't what it used to be. When my mother passed, my father sank even deeper into the bottle than he already was, dealing with his sadness the only way he knew how: through anger. Anger at me, at my brother, at our dog, at the world. He yelled and spat and drank and hit and spread hatred in his wake, until the day my brother finally picked up the phone and they took our father away from us. They took our home away from us. I promised myself I'd never go back. For years, I stayed true to my word, moving from house to house, from school to school, from family to family, none of them ever able to sympathize. They'd never lost their mothers and fathers.

To anyone on the outside looking in, I moved on. I finished school, got out of the system, secured a job, found a boyfriend, and lived my life like any normal girl. But it was the same. The vicious cycle goes on and on, where drunken fathers lead to drunken boyfriends, and sickly mothers lead to sickly daughters. And so I broke my promise. I returned to my house with my boyfriend, hoping that if he only saw it, smelled it, heard it, lived it, he'd understand, but knowing deep down that he'd never understand. I knew it was a mistake the moment I walked into the house. The stench of my childhood and the reek of my father oozed from every crack in the ceiling, overpowering the barely perceptible odor of my mother's perfume. Echoes of screams overpowered echoes of laughter. And he didn't understand.

I sat on the couch, clasping my shaking hands between my knees, too tired and too weak to try to make him see what was right in front of his face. He turned his back. He made flippant remarks about the quality of the house and how he knew a guy who could fix it up and sell it for much more than it was actually worth because who cares about this place because it's just a house, right? I tried to explain. His not understanding changed to not caring, and I could see the wall go up between us. I stopped myself in the middle of a sentence, and I walked out.

So many times after my mother passed, I ran to this tree to talk to her because I knew she would listen. It was no surprise my feet led me here today. I stroked the bark, tracing the heart that we'd etched into the wood, and I poured out my soul to her because I knew she was listening now. The tears flowed, and I didn't stop them. I sank to my knees and sobbed and talked; I told her how I missed her and how I knew I'd be joining her soon and how scared I was. And how scared I was. I leaned against the bark, its roughness scratching my cheek, and I listened. It sounded like home.